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TROLLEY: Transit Plan for Old Town Pasadena : One-Mile Loop for Pasadena : Developer Bets on Trolley for Restoring Old Town

July 14, 1985|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

The thick packet of unused plans for rail mass transit in Los Angeles County notwithstanding, a private developer in Pasadena wants to build the first trolley system constructed in the area since the turn of the century, but it's unclear if the proposal is a dramatic initiative or a ticket to Toonerville.

After 18 months of trying--including at least one large promotional event--the developer, John P. Wilson, has finally convinced Pasadena city officials that he is serious about his plan to encircle, with a one-mile trolley loop, a restored historical area of Old Town Pasadena that will become a shopping center. The area is near the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue.

Assured of Solvency

The trolley, Wilson projects, will attract 2,000 riders a day and is assured of solvency by rent assessments that will be charged all occupants of Wilson's ambitious Pasadena Marketplace development, which began construction of its first parking garage this week. Riders would pay a 50-cent fare, but many merchants would provide tokens free.

A comparison of Wilson's figures with the operating results of other cities that have tried the same thing, however, suggests some possible major discrepancies.

Triple the Ridership

Wilson bases predictions for his trolley's success on assumptions that the Pasadena line will attract nearly triple the ridership of what is now the largest such operation in the country.

Moreover, Wilson maintains that the rent assessment will provide a more than adequate subsidy to ensure that the trolley line meets its costs. But the assessment of merchants to cover the revenue that the trolley doesn't generate from the fare box would be only about half the actual deficit recorded each year by a similar trolley line in Seattle and an even smaller fraction of the loss in Detroit.

Local interest in Pasadena has been intense and city officials--both elected and not--have come to share much of Wilson's enthusiasm and optimism. His shopping center restoration may represent the key to resurgence of a part of downtown Pasadena that, until about two years ago, had been in unremitting decline.

Too, there is great optimism in Pasadena that redevelopment of the Old Town Pasadena zone in general may be a major step in the budding reestablishment of the city as a top quality shopping, dining and night life center--after years of eclipse by communities on the Westside.

There is a certain irony even in that because Wilson's most recent project was the Westside restoration of the Main Street strip in Santa Monica. That is a project that first seemed destined to attract nothing but serious, upscale stores, boutiques and restaurants but which recently has turned, Wilson concedes, into a bit more of a tourist and beach visitor drag than first intended.

And though other transit lines have been proposed and endlessly discussed in the Los Angeles metropolitan area there is at least the prospect that the first rail system actually to be built in the county since the Red Cars went out of business in the 1950s will not only be constructed by a private company but will be a line that exists nowhere in any of the grid of plans drawn up for the area as long ago as 1911.

There is skepticism in Pasadena, too, of course. Even one local businessman who supports Wilson's plan likens the trolley to the horsecar ride at Disneyland.

And while Wilson claims to be nearly ready to proceed with actual construction of his trolley line--he says it will be ready for its first passengers by December of next year--a survey by The Times of such attempts in seven other cities finds that pitfalls for such little trolleys are many, complete failures are common and true successes are few.

Attracting Visitors

The trolley line, Wilson and Pasadena city officials agree, could enhance the city's attraction to visitors. There is even talk--so far nothing more, though--of the trolley line begetting more light rail on a modest local grid in Pasadena and mating with a proposed high-speed line to downtown Los Angeles.

Neither the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission nor the Southern California Rapid Transit District would take an official position on Wilson's Pasadena trolley. Each agency said that the Pasadena line isn't part of any cohesive transit system for the Southland.

Wilson says he is putting $50 million into his Pasadena Marketplace development, of which the trolley line will account for $1.7 million to $2.1 million--figures trolley experts say may represent realistic estimates for the cost of actually building the system Wilson proposes. The figure, however, is only about a third that of the actual construction cost in Detroit, which, since 1976, has operated a short downtown line of its own along a 7/8-mile track.

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